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  December 4, 2000

New Electronic Inter Library Loan Service Brings Documents to Desktop

When researcher Margaret Sekellick is up against a deadline for submitting a grant proposal, she has little time to get hold of the references she needs.

"Most of the time it's critical that the items I need come in quickly," says Sekellick, a professor-in-residence of molecular and cell biology. "When I order an article, it's usually because I'm in the middle of writing and I need to know what that reference says, in order to be able to work it in appropriately. If it doesn't come promptly, it may be beyond the point when I have to submit the proposal."

Sekellick is one of about 300 faculty, staff and students who have benefited from the University Libraries' new electronic document delivery service since the summer. The service is expected to be made available to all members of the University community early in the new year.

"Electronic document delivery fits in with our overall philosophy of trying to deliver information to the desktop," says Brinley Franklin, director of library services.

Jean Osborn, a master's student in social work, is taking a class in social gerontology that requires her to obtain and summarize a different journal article each week. Osborn, who takes classes at the Greater Hartford campus, is not always able to go to the library in person to track down those articles. She welcomes the convenience of being able to order and access the articles she needs right from her home computer. "Time is precious, and this is very time-efficient," she says.

Time is also of the essence to Joseph Golec, an associate professor of finance who joined the UConn faculty from Clark University in Worcester, Mass., in July. Not long ago, he says, he used to have to go to the library and stand at the copy machine himself, photocopying the articles he could find. For other articles, he had to fill out a form, wait a couple of weeks, and make another trip to the library to pick up the items.

"This has resulted in a tremendous amount of time saving for me," says Golec, who estimates he has received about 60 documents electronically since August.

Electronic document delivery, an up-to-the-minute version of interlibrary loan, is a quick, easy and convenient way of accessing journal articles. Books, however, must still be handled in bound form.

Requests are submitted to the library via e-mail; since March, all interlibrary loan requests must be submitted electronically. Requests for articles that are already on-line or are owned by one of the roughly 600 libraries able to scan articles into Ariel - an Internet fax software - can sometimes be filled within hours. Those that must be forwarded in paper form to the UConn library may take a little longer, but once they reach UConn are converted to electronic form right away.

"Electronic delivery doesn't change the time required for the lending library to deliver an item to us," says Joseph Natale, document delivery/shared resources librarian. "The difference is in terms of the time it takes to get the item from our office into the patron's hands."

Once University Libraries receive the item, staff members post it to the library's server almost instantly, where it will remain for up to four weeks. At the same time the user is informed of its arrival via e-mail. From the Web, the article - which is password-protected - can be read, printed or saved to disk.

The average turnaround time from request to receipt of the article, says Natale, is two to three days.

It's a popular service. During October, the library processed 325 requests for electronic document delivery. And the volume is expected to increase considerably when access is made available to everyone.

All the service requires on the part of users is a computer with Internet access, with a connection speed of at least 56 kilobytes, and the software program Acrobat Reader, which can be downloaded free of charge from the Web.

Depending on the speed of the computer, downloading articles may take some time: the library cites an average of 15 minutes for a 10-page article.

"But for me, it's always worth the wait," says Wendy St. Jean, a Ph.D. student in history. "It saves me a 90-minute drive each way to UConn and the parking fee besides.

"It is truly impressive, a real breakthrough in the needed-yesterday world of academics," St. Jean says.

Users and library staff alike report few, if any, technical problems during the test phase. "The interface is really smooth, very few glitches," says Eric Schultz, an assistant professor of ecology and evolutionary biology.

Schultz, who also participated in a similar pilot program a couple of years ago that delivered the document via e-mail to a handful of users, says the new web-based approach is much easier to use.

Natale says the technical issues have mostly involved familiarizing users with the procedures. The library staff has posted a comprehensive list of frequently asked questions and answers on the library's website.

Although the quality of the text is generally good, there is still room for improvement in the quality of images, a concern for many scientists.

The service is provided free to the University community. The costs to the library include a $50,000 investment in hardware and software, as well as ongoing copyright fees. Last year, for example, the University Libraries paid $21,000 for copyright fees incurred by UConn libraries, including the medical and law libraries.

Not only are scholars now able to receive documents electronically, they often find the citations in electronic databases. For many, the days of browsing the stacks are becoming a thing of the past.

"When I was a graduate student," says Schultz, who received his Ph.D. in 1990, "we had a current reading room, and I would snuggle in for an afternoon. Now it's a matter of the information coming in to me. It's just a different world now."

Elizabeth Omara-Otunnu